Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mr Shorten is just so 1990s

There was something just so 1990s about Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's remarks (and here) on the question of an Australian republic et al.
"Let us have the courage to ask ourselves if we measure up to more than just a grab-bag of cliches," he said.
"Let us declare that our head of state should be one of us. 
"Let us rally behind an Australian republic - a model that truly speaks for who we are, our modern identity, our place in our region and our world."

Cliches anyone? Really. It gets worse if you look at Mr Shorten's apparent views on Australian history.

The one really important issue that Mr Shorten raised was the need for constitutional recognition of Australia's Aboriginal heritage. This is something that I support as a way of putting one aspect of Australia's past behind us. Sadly, it has all become highly problematic. There is no agreement that I can see within the Aboriginal community, while the non-Aboriginal community doesn't care a great deal and is equally divided. Then to mix the question, as Mr Shorten did, with other issues is to add too division.

 Fortunately, as an historian I do not have to buy into Mr Shorten's apparent interpretation of the Australian past. I don't want to play in the history wars. In writing, my task is to present the evidence and (hopefully) make it interesting.


The transcript of Mr Shorten's speech is not yet available, so I have not been able to cross-check my reactions against the actual words.

Mr Shorten was speaking at the launch of a new book, Mateship, by author Nick Dyrenfurth. I am not sure that it is correct to claim, as the publisher's blurb does, that this is the first book-length exploration of Australia's secular creed. I would have thought that that claim actually belonged to Russell Ward's The Australian Legend. However, the place and topic set the context for Mr Shorten's remarks.

One of the difficulties with mateship lies in the in-built tension between mates and the rest, between them and us. The concept does become generalised, made universal as an element of the Australian character, that was the continuing power of Ward's book, but the tension remains and has expressed itself in various ways over time. Mr Shorten refers to this. I quote from the Canberra Times report.
Mr Shorten also said that while Australia Day should be celebrated, it was important that Australians also confronted the lows and tragedies of Australian history, such as the Myall Creek massacre. 
"I don't think shirking it with the great Australian silence solves anything. We need to recognise our history." 
Mateship, he said, "reminds us of a timeless truth: real patriots don't try and justify or excuse their nation's flaws and failings and anachronisms – they get on and fix them. True patriots don't shrink from historical truth – they welcome it, they learn from it. True patriots know that until a nation includes everyone – in its history, in its society, in its economy – then there is always more to do."

The opposition leader said Australians were tired of people "claiming victory in the 'history wars' - as if the Australian story has to be fought 'to the last man and the last footnote'."

"We gain nothing from boiling down our history to a bland mish-mash myth of the Rum Rebellion and Burke and Wills, Bodyline and the stump-jump plough, the Victa Mower and Olympic gold. There is nothing wrong with celebrating those moments and achievements – but it is wrong to pretend that they represent the limit of our national capabilities – or our national ambitions." 
And he criticised Prime Minister Tony Abbott's assertion late last year, when welcoming UK Prime Minister David Cameron to the parliament, that former prime minister John Howard had settled the debate about Australia's place in the world. 
"No leader can 'end' a conversation about our nation's sense of self. No leader can 'settle' the question of Australia's global role and responsibilities. And no leader should take pride in trying.
The book traces the history of 'mateship" in Australia, with Mr Shorten describing it as a "celebration of our national character". 
But Mr Shorten also noted the book acknowledged that Australian 'mateship' had rarely included everyone", noting for example that at the turn of the 20th century, the Australian Workers Union was open to all workers but at the same time say: "No Chinese, Japanese, Kanakas, Afghans or coloured aliens." 
"The fact is, mateship has not always been there when our nation, our people needed it. After all, where was mateship at Myall Creek? Or at Lambing Flat? Where was mateship when governments and institutions worked together to take children from their mothers – because the mother was unmarried, or black?" 
My problem with Mr Shorten's remarks lies in the way he mixes so many things together. The phrase "the great Australian silence" was popularised by the anthropologist William Edward Stanner in 1968, referring to the way in which Aboriginal history including the destruction of Aboriginal society had been effectively excluded from Australian history. 

Professor Stanner was a remarkable man who occupies a special niche in Australia's intellectual history. However, as is so often the case, he coined the phrase at a time of an explosion of interest in Aboriginal culture and history, an explosion that he helped create. I have written a fair bit on that explosion because of the way that it is wrapped in elements of the nostalgia of my own past. It was just fun.

Mr Shorten re-uses the phrase "the great Australian silence" as though it were still current. That's just not true. The whole point about the so-called Australian history wars of the 1990s lay in disputes about the balance in historical analysis between calling a spade a spade or a bloody shovel. In coining the phrase "the black armband of history" in 1993, historian Geoffrey Blainey suggested that we had reached the point that the spade was being called a bloody shovel. Those on the other side argued that the spade was indeed a bloody shovel. The great Australian silence had been replaced by a very rancorous great Australian clamour.

The last paragraph in the report on Mr Shorten's views is a pastiche of popular historical misconceptions. He asks where was the mateship at Myall Creek, at Lambing Flat, in the taking away of children? These are rhetorical flourishes masquerading as history.  

Myall Creek was a rather nasty massacre, not the only one in Northern NSW nor elsewhere in Australia. My fellow student Brian Harrison first documented the massacre in his 1966 History honours thesis at the University of New England. Since then, it has been covered in multiple publications. No great silence there. The historical significance of Myall Creek lies not in the massacre, but in the hanging of those involved, the way that it affected policy towards Aboriginal people and race relations on the moving frontier. 

The Lambing Flat riots were one of a number of race inspired incidents that took place on the gold fields between European and Chinese diggers. Just as the convicts and ex-convicts at Myall Creek displayed mateship, so did the Lambing Flat diggers. Or, and more impressive, so did the squatter who gave protection to a large number of Chinese on his station. But the historical significance of the riots lay in the way they affected policy towards the Chinese, helping lay the basis for later action to exclude Chinese and to finally establish the White Australia Policy at Federation.

Finally, this business of taking children from their mothers has to be seen in the context of the history of child welfare and evolving attitudes towards the protection of children. Sadly. and this is true of Aboriginal policy as well, the greatest tragedies occurred not because of the presence or absence of mateship, but because of do-good attitudes developed by sincere and honest people that took expression in official policy. Many of the wrongs came from the desire to do what was right. 


Anonymous said...

Um. Just for comparison, what are Mr Abbott's views? Are they too so 1990s?

Just wondering.


Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, Sue. I have extended the post somewhat.

To answer your question, Mr Abbott's views are just so 1970s, 1980s, if with overlays. The views he espouses began developing during the 1970s, flowered in the 1980s.